Saturday May 28, 2022

Keeping experts in the loop

November 08, 2017

There has been a national discussion on the pros and cons of a technocratic government. It has been assumed that the installation of a technocratic government necessarily requires the democratic system to be derailed. This is not true.

Even our current prime minister could form a technocratic government by selecting eminent experts from various fields and inducting them into the cabinet as federal ministers or electing them into parliament or the Senate. This could be done through the constitution. It could also be achieved under a presidential system of democracy. This would require a president to be elected by popular vote and consequently select cabinet members without electing them to parliament or the Senate. While this process would require a constitutional change, it would still be entirely democratic.

Why is such a change urgent and necessary? Knowledge has now become the driving force for socioeconomic development. What we need to transition towards a knowledge economy are specialists in the cabinet, not electables who are usually corrupt. Transitioning towards a knowledge economy is a complicated process that requires careful policy changes in almost every sphere of national activity through fundamental transformations in education, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship.

We can learn from the experiences of Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Finland. Singapore had no natural resources and focused exclusively on developing its human resources so that it could produce and export high-technology products. The result is an astonishing $300 billion worth of exports from a country with a population of about one-fourth of Karachi.

Our exports stagnate at $21 billion. Our incumbent leadership is, by and large, patently incompetent to understand what it takes to shift from the present natural resource-driven economy towards a knowledge-driven economy. In order to achieve a dynamic interaction between research institutions and the private sector on the role that innovation is now playing in the process of socioeconomic government (the so called “triple helix” that could create jobs and alleviate poverty), top experts are required as ministers and secretaries in the driving seat.

Successive governments have failed to realise development. This is evident from the fact that the national development budget for science and technology stands at only Rs2 billion while we are spending more on transportation schemes that are based on imported technologies.

Research carried out at top universities and research centres has led to the creation of new products that are enhancing national exports. Bright young men and women are our assets. They are now in demand as they are the key to our future. Although huge increases in the agricultural sector have been achieved, Pakistan still imports hybrid seeds for rice or vegetable production.

Car engines have been manufactured in the West since the early part of the previous century. But we are still not capable of manufacturing even the smallest and most primitive engines. Specialised metal alloys are needed in the engineering field. However, we don’t have the ability to produce them. Our pharmaceutical industry cannot manufacture even a single pharmaceutical.

Our agriculture yields are nearly half to one-third of what they are in India or Egypt even though we claim to be an agricultural country. Our milk yields from domestic animals are less than a quarter of what they are in Israel. There are countless examples of what a technocratic government could do to transform our collapsing economy and build a knowledge economy. The manner in which artificial intelligence is gradually transforming our lives is one such example.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is now beginning to impact every sphere of human endeavour, including industrial manufacturing processes, medicine, the health sciences, transportation, communication, agriculture and warfare. Large, unstructured data on the environment, the business sector and other fields can be analysed through AI. This would allow rational conclusions to be drawn regarding future strategies. The worldwide spending on cognitive systems is expanding at a dramatic rate, with the development of new software platforms to adapt to this growing need of the business sector and the government.

The field of autonomous vehicle will soon witness the impact of AI. All major car manufacturers are working in this sphere and are concerned that these advancements may result in the collapse of the conventional car manufacturing industry as personal cars will be replaced by autonomous taxis that will be available from companies like Uber much more economically. Google, Tesla and other companies are making massive investments in this field. It is predicted that all petrol or diesel vehicles will disappear within two decades and be replaced by autonomous electric vehicles.

Another area where AI will soon have an impact is communication. Language has always been a barrier to communications. Now, Skype has developed an AI-based translator that allows us to talk to anyone in any language. The self-learning device uses layers of machine-learning algorithms to ensure that every sentence is analysed from millions of speech examples, including variations produced by slang and accents.

Chatbots have been developed to allow real-time customer support. These use AI and can facilitate interaction with customers over the internet. Large companies are acquiring the services of chatbot services through companies such as Microsoft. The chatbot economy will offer ticket, hotel and flight booking services along with medical and legal services through AI-supported chatbots. Digital assistants offering prompt services to customers will enhance sales.

Even white collar workers will find their jobs endangered by the availability of smarter and cheaper AI services. IBM has already developed a powerful computer – Watson – that is offering medical and legal services. For instance, cancer is a devastating disease and cancer specialists often find that patients do not respond to specific treatments. This is because we have different genetic make-ups and respond to individual drugs in different ways. As a result, oncologists often have to look into a patient’s genomics to be able to choose the right treatment. IBM’s Watson can do this quickly and accurately and thereby save precious time that is lost through trial and error.

We still live in the dark ages. Our government needs to wake up and appoint the finest minds in the country so that they can develop a strong knowledge economy.

The writer is the former federal minister for science and technology and former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries (NASIC).